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Who Art Thou That Judgest?

Sermon on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans (13:11-14:4), Forgiveness Sunday (Cheesefare Sunday)

by Father James Thornton

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ, tomorrow we Orthodox Christians begin the Great Fast. We now enter an extended period of approximately seven weeks of more intense prayer and fasting until we reach Holy Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, the Feast of Christ’s Resurrection. This is a period of golden opportunity for each of us wherein we may look deeply within ourselves and determine what, from a spiritual point of view, is unwholesome or deficient. We may then, during this time, begin the work of excising from our lives that which is unhealthy and, at the same time, augmenting that which is truly sound and truly pleasing to God.

I run the risk here of sounding prosaic and platitudinous when I recall the popular saying, “You are what you eat.” Yet I shall take the risk: you are indeed what you eat. It is quite obvious that if we eat luxuriously, if our diet is exclusively confined to the most extravagant foods, exotically flavored and rich in fats, spices, and sugars, as is typical of the contemporary American diet, our individual physiologies will sooner or later bear the marks of those habits, either in various aspects of outward appearance or in the functioning of our bodily systems, or in both.

Moreover, our individual characters, personalities, and temperaments will be marked, and, likewise, and most importantly, our souls. An obsession with the worldly impresses itself on the whole of our beings. By way of contrast, more prudent choices in our diets, as prescribed during the Fast by our wise Mother the Church, will do the opposite, and may make us physically healthier, and most assuredly will make us spiritually healthier.

Some religious writers of a modernist or fundamentalist bent enjoy drawing our attention to the alleged fact that in early Christianity—primitive Christianity, as it is sometimes called—there were no Holy Canons regarding fasting, no Great Lent, practically no fasting rules at all. Holy Canons and fasting periods are seen by these writers as latter-day and, by implication, needless accretions, even “monkish” accretions in the estimation of many of them.

In today’s Epistle reading, St. Paul writes of a difference of opinion between those who believe that they may eat all things and those who “eateth herbs [i.e., vegetables],” as he puts it. We see from this passage that even at this earliest stage, just a few decades after Christ’s Ascension, questions about fasting from certain foods were already present and were already the subject of discussion. So, fasting was not unknown in the Apostolic Church. In fact, Orthodox historians maintain that the Wednesday and Friday fasts are of Apostolic origin and it is likely that, while the Lenten fasts were not codified in their current form until after the Apostolic period, that codification nonetheless reflected an already established, though not always uniform, tradition.

Consequently, what the modernist and fundamentalist writers say is true only to the very limited extent that, in St. Paul’s day, certain details about fasting had not yet appeared and would take time to unfold. As with medical science or, let us say, the science of physics, the science that is Orthodox theology required time to mature.

The comparison here between the natural sciences and theology is apt, yet it is imperfect in one respect. In the case of the natural sciences, new discoveries that radically alter the body of fundamental knowledge are always possible. The discovery of the connection between bacteria and disease by nineteenth-century medical science or the displacement of classical physics by quantum physics in the twentieth century are examples of this. In the case of Orthodox theology, that cannot happen.

All knowledge needed for salvation has been given us by Christ; the body of fundamental knowledge remains fixed and changeless. No radical discoveries about this knowledge are possible. But a growth in the understanding of the application of that body of knowledge to our lives is possible, and that growth, that maturing, has characterized the history of Orthodoxy.

As the grave risk to life and limb that was associated with membership in the primitive Church abated in the early fourth century, it became safe, even fashionable, to belong to the Church. It was then that other methods for forging the spiritual character became an urgent necessity, and for this reason fasting took on an increased importance at that time. When one lives by day and by night under the terror of persecution; when crucifixion, burning alive, being devoured by wild animals, or being sentenced to a life of forced labor, are genuine possibilities for the followers of Christ; when one’s outlook is colored by continuous fear of the knock at the door—in those circumstances, it may be argued, the most rigorous type of fasting is not as indispensable as in more tranquil times.

Therefore, those who argue that we ought to return to the more primitive practice of fasting, in which it was somewhat less comprehensively regulated, should understand that if membership in Christ’s Church is to achieve anything positive for us at all, then with this less stringent regimen in fasting there must also come a desire for trials of the most severe kind elsewhere in our lives. If membership in Christ’s Church is to make us more like Christ, either one or the other is indispensable. Considered that way, we can see that fasting from animal products is not so difficult after all.

Now, let us enter more fully into the message of today’s Epistle reading. In writing of the disputations in the early Roman Church between those who did not fast so strictly and those who did, St. Paul offers this admonition: “Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth.” What wonderfully beneficial words these are!

St. Paul is telling us that whatever fasting discipline we or others follow, the crucial thing is that we address the matter of our own relationship with our Master, Jesus Christ, and not judge the relationship of our neighbor with Him. When we each face the question as to whether we need to fast more stringently to strengthen our commitment to our Faith, our answer to that question, and the way our answer manifests itself in our lives, will ultimately be judged by the Master Whom we serve, when we stand before His “dread judgment seat.” So it is also in all the things we choose. It is not for us to make judgments about our Christian brothers and sisters. For several reasons we do not judge them:

1. To judge another is to usurp the place of God; as St. Paul says: “Who art thou that judgest?”

2. To judge another is to take one’s focus off the place where it should be, and must be, to save one’s soul, which is on one’s own spiritual imperfections.

3. To judge another is to incur the danger of an additional sin, misjudging, since we cannot see into another man’s heart and cannot know all of the circumstances of his life. St. Dorotheos of Gaza observes that while one can see another man’s sins, one cannot know about that man’s standing with God, about his secret prayers of supplication for mercy and forgiveness. “You may well know about the sin,” the great Saint writes, “but you do not know about the repentance.”[1]

4. To judge another brings further dissension and strife into the Church, a place where peace and love should be the primary attributes.

5. To judge another is to bring on the temptation of an even worse sin, one of the worst among sins, which is gossip.

6. Finally, and most significantly, to judge another is to bring judgment upon ourselves; Christ Himself warned, “judge not, and ye shall not be judged.”

We are repeatedly warned as Christians not to judge other men and women. Does this require that we completely abandon our critical faculties when it comes to our dealings with other people? If we should know of a man who is a notorious embezzler, do we do right in judging him unfit to be the custodian of the public treasury? If we should encounter a man whom we know to be a psychopathic murderer, do we properly judge it unwise to invite him over to dinner? The answer to both questions, obviously, is yes.

Let us take some less extreme and more likely examples. If we learn that a particular friend or companion exerts an unhealthy influence on us as Christians, or if we believe that a friend or companion of our children may lead those children astray, may we make the appropriate judgment in those cases and terminate such associations? Again, the answer is yes. Of course we may do that. We would be held accountable by Christ for not making these kinds of judgments.

What we are forbidden as Christians to do is to judge another person’s ultimate state before God, or to employ our critical faculties to enhance, in our own minds, our own rank or station or footing, in what we fancy are the eyes of God, at the expense of another human being. We are forbidden, in other words, to regard ourselves as “holy” by comparison with someone we regard as “sinful.” The Holy Gospel teaches us that Christ God judged the outwardly holy men of His country, the Pharisees, very harshly, while the Good Thief (a most unlikely candidate for salvation, one would think) was assured everlasting happiness. St. John of the Ladder declares that, “[T]he beginning and sum of the passions... [is] unholy self-esteem.”[2]

Let us therefore not fasten our gaze upon the imagined inadequacies of other men and women during the Great Fast but examine with the most penetrating contemplation possible our own spiritual failures, that these may be swiftly amended. For most, if not all, of us, that task is sufficient to fill a lifetime.


Note: Numbering does not match the book.

[1] [St.] Dorotheos of Gaza, Discourse and Sayings, trans. Eric P. Wheeler No. 33 of Cistercian Studies Series (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1977), p. 135.

[2] The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 22, § 1 (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), p. 132.

From Quickened with Christ (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2004), pp. 51-56. This superb book of homilies is highly recommended! Posted on 10 March, 2006 (n.s.).